It is always wonderful to return to the mountains and villages of Lebanon surrounding Wadi Qannoubine, which has been a refuge for Maronites for centuries. As the Maronites from the cities of Lebanon and from the diaspora flock to these regions for summer holidays, there was a time when Maronite’s flocked to this region fleeing hardship. They tilled the land and lived in the caves deep in the valley.
Asceticism has been a cornerstone of Maronite spirituality. Monks have been in these caves as monastics for centuries. Fr Darios is a unique and enigmatic figure against this environment. Born in Columbia, he is 83 years old. He remains here day and night and sleeps on the floor like so many Maronite ascetics before him.
Fr Darios only leaves three times a year to visit for major feasts at his Monastery nearby. There are two main ways to get to the grotto where he lives and both are only accessible by foot. One longer (but less rigorous) trail starts at the bottom of Wadi Qannoubine and passes through the Church of St Marina and the graves of some of the greatest Maronite Patriarchs. Another shorter trail starts from Hawka and is accessed by steep stairs.
Fr Darios has been a hermit for 17 years and in Lebanon for 27 years. He has no Lebanese background, but his roots are now planted firmly in the grounds of Qannoubine. He has been a priest for 56 years. He has not served extensively in his native Columbia, rather after he became a priest he served in Argentina, Venezuela and Spain. He was one of the Secretaries of the Counsel of Vatican II. He then landed in Miami where he met the Maronites and eventually joined the Lebanese Maronite order in Lebanon.
He seems at peace amongst this solitude and isolation, but his time is not idle and he works hard. From 6am to 4pm crowds of people stream through the valley to see him. Busloads of people come from all corners of the globe. The crowds are relentless and continue to come year-round.
I am reminded of Simon Stylite, the Syriac monk who started building a tower to avoid the crowds of people who were flocking to him and to get closer to God. But no matter how high he built the tower, the people kept coming.
People come to Fr Darios weighed down with their problems and seeking his guidance. Some are sick or have sick ones and come seeking healing. Others cannot have children or have marriage issues and come seeking counselling. Mothers come begging for prayers for their wayward children and fathers come for reassurance about their difficult economic circumstances. The only times Fr Darios has to himself is when the sun goes down and the crowds can no longer navigate the track in the dark. Fr Darios greets each person in the crowd with absolute joy. His native language is Spanish, but he gets by with anyone of any nationality with in his broken Arabic, English or French. The winters are cold and it snows. Last year he had a stroke which affected his legs and it took hours to get him the medical assistance he needed.
Also there on the day was Brother Peter, also from the Lebanese Maronite Order. Brother Peter bought with him a group of mainly French tourists to visit Fr Darios. He let the tourists return and then remained to help Fr Darios with work around the grotto. He too did not grow up in the valley. Although Brother Peter is of Lebanese heritage, he grew up in Australia and has come to this secluded valley as part of his vocation.
This is the Maronite model of asceticism that started with St Maroun. Monastics of other traditions often remain secluded in their monasteries with little connection to the outside world. The Maronite hermits are secluded in the natural environment completely accessible to the people. They are the counsellors and doctors and they take on the people’s problems, fasting and praying for each of those that have visited and confessed to them. Those like Father Darios and Brother Peter show us that the Maronite monastics are not only a treasure for the Maronite’s, but for the entire world. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian, “do not consider a long time spent in Worship before God to be wasted.” These hermits are our very own bridge to God. There prayers are what have consoled and carried the Maronite people for centuries. Let us pray for our hermits and monastics and continue to ask them to pray for us.